Saturday, January 21, 2006

“Yes” + Touch = Memorable Meal

When dining in a restaurant and the chef approaches your table asking, “What are you in the mood for?” Your reply should be, “What do you recommend?”

If he or she then asks, “Do you want me to take care of you?” Your answer should always be an unequivocal, “YES!”

Not “Maybe,” or, “Well, if you want to,” or “What did you have in mind?” but a simple and quick, “Yes,” and sometimes, “Yes, please” and in certain instances, “Oh yes, please, oh please, oh please, oh please. Yes. Yes. Yes!”

This is the response you have stored away in your back pocket, the one you’ve been looking forward to using once again when the time was right. You have been waiting for months, years, sometimes decades, hoping for just the right restaurant, at just the right time, when the stars align, your cooking kismet and culinary karma have caught up with you, the restaurant gods are smiling down upon you, and the chef offers to put the fate of your dinner in his hands. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does— a moment of silence, please, while I remember my most recent meal at Restaurant August— it is a memorable event.

This moment hasn’t occurred if the guest has to ask the chef to “Take care of me.” Those dinners will be good, but nothing akin to the meal that follows the unsolicited offer tendered by the chef.

My wife and I were in New Orleans this past weekend, and dropped in on John Besh at Restaurant August. He stopped by our table and we caught up with each other, enjoyed some small talk mixed with meaty banter, and then it came: The question. “Do you want me to take care of you?”

After an excited, “Yes!” Besh retreated to his kitchen.

Minutes later the waiter stopped by the table and said, “So the chef’s gonna fix you up tonight?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well sit back, buckle your seatbelts, and enjoy the ride.”

I looked at my wife and said, “This is going to be good.”

John Besh is a genius. I don’t use that term flippantly, especially when it comes to the culinary arts. However, if the chef coat fits…

Our first course was a salad of heirloom beets, lump crabmeat, cherry-smoked bacon, quail eggs, and black-eyed pea croutons. It was the most memorable salad I have eaten since a frisée concoction prepared by Alfred Portale in his Manhattan restaurant, Gotham Bar and Grill, two years ago. Actually it might rank as one of the top three salads I have ever eaten in my life.

John Besh has excellent “touch.” One of the most important qualities a chef possesses is touch. It can’t be taught, it can’t be learned. It has to come from within, he or she is born with it. Good “touch” in cooking is knowing just the right amount to use, when to back off, and when to add in. Some have it, others don’t. Besh has it in spades.

The crabmeat and heirloom-beet salad was a prime example of good touch.

The second course arrived and my wife was served three separate oyster preparations: an oyster seared with country ham and truffle spoon bread, a crispy-fried oyster with Louisiana caviar, and a baked oyster served with an infused cream and Parmigiano reggiano. All were superb, the last being outstanding.

My second course will— from this day forward— be referred to as: “Death by Foie Gras.” On one plate I received four unique and inventive treatments of my favorite food, seared, grilled, smoked, and wrapped in the thinnest of five-layered pastries. I could have called it quits at that moment and the meal would have gone down in my top ten of all time meals, but there was more to come, much more.

For her third course, my wife was served a potato gnocchi (dumpling) with lump crabmeat and black truffle which once again reinforced the chef’s expertise and touch. The flavors were simple yet subtly amazing.

My third course was a dish of agnolotti (small stuffed pasta) filled with a crawfish reduction and tossed with fresh peas, sweetbreads, morels, and a small dice of the most intensely flavored smoked bacon I have ever tasted. The pasta was tossed in a cream-infused fish fumet that had— here comes that word— just the right touch.

Again, I could have stopped right there, but Besh wouldn’t have it.

Our fourth course was a fish course. My wife was served an almond-crusted sheepshead filet finished with a brown butter and crabmeat, while I received Loup-de-Mer (sea bass sometimes called wolfish) on top of a cauliflower puree finished in a truffle-infused veal stock reduction. Both were excellent.

After the fourth course, the server heard my wife and me moaning quietly (good moans, mind you) and instructed the chef to combine the upcoming meat and poultry courses. For our fifth and sixth combined courses we received a Moroccan-spiced duck breast with polenta, more foie gras, and dates. We were also served a Kobe beef short rib, a small fingerling potato filled with smoked marrow, and a petite filet mignon.

At this point I tried to remember if I had ever enjoyed a meal this much. Had Charlie Trotter’s been better? No. Had Gary Danko been better? No. Had any meal in New York or New Orleans ever been better? The answer again was, no.

It was during that epiphany that three dessert plates were set on our table. A chocolate tart with a small glass of warm spiced wine, a banana-rum cake with Creole cream cheese icing, and a plate adorned with a pear brulee, apple sorbet, a small candied apple, and a quince strudel. Stick a fork in him folks, he’s toast.

I could write for days of Besh’s skill, generosity, talents, and qualifications, but all of that information can be picked up on the website . What you should know is that he was born in Mississippi, raised in Louisiana, trained at the Harvard of cooking schools— the Culinary Institute of America— apprenticed in France, led a battalion in the Gulf War, worked at the Grill Room at Windsor Court, was chosen by Food & Wine magazine as one of the country’s top young chefs, and opened Restaurant August in 1999.

Besh’s August was the first New Orleans tablecloth restaurant to reopen (using actual tablecloths, silver, and china) after Katrina. He reopened only 30 days after the storm hit the city. In addition to operating one of the finest restaurants in the country, he has fed 1,100 displaced people— in three separate tent cities— breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day.

Sitting in Restaurant August and witnessing one of the country’s top culinary talents at the top of his game was a pleasure I will never forget. It was a magical, humbling, and wonderful experience.

Always remember, if the chef asks, just say “Yes.”

No comments: